A Very Volatile Time

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

Bernie Farber joined Students for a Democratic Society in the mid-1960s while a student at Niles East High School. He attended Roosevelt University and was editor of the student newspaper, The Torch. He was on the staff of The Seed from 1970 to 1973. He currently teaches part time at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and works as an attorney. The excerpts printed below are taken from the transcript of a much longer interview.
SM/AV   How did you end up writing for The Seed? What attracted you to the paper?
Bernie Farber  In May of 1970, there were the killings at Kent State, the invasion of Cambodia, the killings at Jackson State and a nationwide student strike. I chaired the meeting at Roosevelt that called the student strike there. And we carried on a variety of activities during that week. There was in fact a referendum as to whether or not Roosevelt U. should shut down until the war ends, and we got 1/3 of the student votes in favor of shutting down—over 970 people in fact. It was a very volatile time.
I knew the people at The Seed. I lived in the neighborhood. I had spent time at their offices and written articles for them before about what was happening in SDS and at Roosevelt. I also did an article about the Chicago Transit Authority. When I left Roosevelt after May or June 1970– after Cambodia and Kent State, the student strike and everything like that– I went over to The Seed and started working full time there.
SM/AV   What sorts of stories did The Seed focus on during your tenure there?
BF   Well, the anti-war movement in general was a continuing theme. We not only covered protests and events, but we covered what was going on with the war. You know, the Pentagon Papers. We also—The Seed collective—were very much directly involved in anti-war activities. We did stuff like drive down Lake Shore Drive holding anti-war banners out the windows between two cars. During large anti-war marches downtown, The Seed collective would do demonstrations inside these State Street stores; while the big demonstration was going on on State Street, we would gather in the center of the aisle at Marshall Fields and start yelling anti-war chants and march down the middle of the aisle, and then out the other door. We did that a number of times without getting caught. One woman was busted by store security at Sears once, but that was it. It was a real dramatic thing, because it was part of this no business as usual mentality, we’re going to disrupt business and not allow people to just go about their shopping while people are getting killed in Southeast Asia.
SM/AV   Could you say a little more about your piece on the CTA? Judging from the reporting in the mainstream dailies at the time, the outcry over CTA fare hikes back then was enormous and ultimately caused CTA to back away from their proposed fare increase.
BF   A little bit, not much. The major thing, based on the research I did, was that the CTA used to be all these private transit companies. They ran the system into the ground. They hauled all the profit that they could out of it, didn’t maintain it at all, and then when they were bankrupt and falling apart, they pulled it over to this Chicago Transit Authority, where the city government bailed them out. The money [for the bailout] was in a variety of mechanisms [and] was lent to them by some of the same banks that controlled the private transit companies. There were these revenue bonds where a lot of the money that people were paying in fares was just going to pay off the interest on the revenue bonds and not be invested in the system. So tax money was then used to do maintenance and upkeep on the CTA. And the same people who used to own the transit companies, and who had destroyed it, were continually being funneled more money in order to pay them off for the purchase of this by the city. They’ve done this several times over. When they formed the Regional Transportation Authority, the RTA, they pulled a different version.
SM/AV   Your article in The Seed exposed all of this. And yet the mainstream news media were not at all interested in digging into the details of the story.
BF   Of course not, and the thing is that this was all public record kind of stuff. But you won’t see that in the records of the Sun-Times or Tribune because, of course, these are some of the same people who are their advertisers or own the banks that loaned them money.
SM/AV   What was it like working at The Seed in the early 1970s?
BF   The editorial process was very haphazard. When it was time to put out an issue, we would have a meeting. Everyone who was on the staff or hanging around would come to the meeting, and we would make up a list of things that people wanted to write, and we would hang up the list, and people would proceed to write the stuff, or in some instances, people would come up with an idea and never write the thing, and when you got your article written, you typed it up, and it got pasted up and laid out, and when there were enough pages you were done. […] One continuing controversy was the artwork, especially when the paper became more political, but there were still people who were more into the artistic end of it. For example, I wrote a long article about the Pentagon Papers, and it went on for a couple pages of dense type. And then somebody put this three color screen graphic behind it, and there were parts of it you couldn’t read. And it was an article I had spent like dozens and dozens of hours getting just right factually.
SM/AV   How did the staff support themselves? People got paid, right?
BF   Once in awhile people would get paid a check of either $50 or if we had the money $100, but you would go months in between that sometimes. People were allowed to take a bundle of papers and the deal usually was that you sold papers for 35 cents. Other people who were street sellers would buy a bundle of 100 for $20, and would sell them for 35 cents. They’d make $15 per hundred. If you were on the staff, you could take a bundle without turning in anything. You just kept the whole $35 bucks. But you know, it would take you the whole day and you had be in a good location. If you were at State and Madison, you did ok, sometimes late at night you could do the Rush St. area and do well, and Wells St., but you know, if you were at other corners, sometimes it wouldn’t be worth doing if you were really trying to make a living. […] I literally did make a good amount of my money other than those occasional checks selling the paper on the street. And I used to view that as a good part of working on the paper too, because you get a lot of conversations, feedback, and even leads for stories sometimes. I didn’t want to be just sitting in the office, I wanted to be out in the community anyway. I’d go to a lot of events also, demonstrations or rallies, things like that. You could sometimes sell a lot of papers that way, and also be there to cover the event. Write up whatever it was.
SM/AV   One issue that The Seed covered in much greater detail than any of the other papers in town was the ongoing police and government harassment of the student left, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords and the underground press. Especially after 1968, it seemed like every issue carried accounts of arrests or raids or police infiltration of movement groups. The Seed was certainly targeted. Can you talk about the various types of harassment people encountered from the police and from the Red Squad because of your involvement with the paper?
BF   If you look through the back issues of the paper, there’s this two page spread I wrote called They Mean to Kill Us All about police shootings. And in there I relate an incident where, during some kind of parade downtown, I’m standing at State and Randolph and I’m selling the paper, and these cops come over to me. Their sergeant points to me and says “When the parade starts, this guy goes down in the Walgreen’s washroom and we beat him up.” I left. I’m a brave person, generally, and I’ve been in situations where I’ve gotten my fair share of abuse, as the Rolling Stones said, but I wasn’t about to hang around for that one.
There was also an organization called the Legion of Justice, and they would do things like break into people’s apartments, beat people up…I had a party at my apartment on Halsted, and a car got firebombed right in front of the place, the next night I heard voices on our back porch, and I found two cans of gasoline there. At one point at The Seed office, some people drove by and shot through the windows.
[The Red Squad] were always coming by and photographing us coming in and out of the building. There were stores that were threatened for just carrying the paper. A cop would come in and say that they shouldn’t be carrying that. Especially more mainstream businesses. Because here’s the thing, it’s one thing for a place like a head shop or a radical bookstore to carry it, but there were mainstream bookstores that carried it too. That was back in the era when there were little neighborhood bookstores in a lot of places – stores that economically don’t exist at this point in time – who were told not to carry it.
There was also one main distribution company in Chicago, Chas A. Levy. Levy was the company that delivered newspaper and magazines to Walgreen’s, supermarkets and similar locations. We could never get them to carry The Seed. They would sign up places to these exclusive contracts. We knew we weren’t going to get into Walgreens, but they would start to sign up these little neighborhood drugstores that had their own magazine rack. It purportedly got to the point where if you owned a drug store and wanted to carry Time, Newsweek, Look, or Sports Illustrated, and they saw that over in the corner there was a stack of The Seed, some store owners claimed that they were told that they might be in violation of the exclusive distribution contract.
SM/AV   Police were also cracking down heavily on The Seed street sellers in the early 70s. How often did people get arrested for selling the paper?
BF   We had tons of instances where we’d have to collect bail money for someone.
SM/AV   What would they be charged with?
BF   Loitering, disorderly conduct and so on. At one point, the ACLU sued the city on behalf of some of the sellers. In fact, they won the case. To a certain extent, after that, some cops backed off. But the individual cops would sometimes just ignore that. It’s like everything else. You have to have money to hire lawyers every time. You couldn’t in that era always call up the ACLU and bother them about this because they were doing a lot of different stuff. They were involved in that big battle over the police spying and stuff. And that was an era where people were getting shot and killed.
[As a result of the ACLU case] it’s still a principal that you can sell a newspaper on the streets of Chicago. In fact, Streetwise, the homeless newspaper still relies on precedent that goes all the way back to that. You don’t have to be the Trib or the Sun-Times to sell a paper on the street. That’s why all these other free papers can stick a box on the streets.
SM/AV   What do you think led to the demise of The Seed and the underground press more generally?
BF   One thing was economics, plainly. Printing got more expensive. Circulation of the paper got more difficult. It got more expensive to live. You no longer could find a house for 10 people to rent for $400 dollars a month. People needed more substantial jobs to survive after the mid-70s. There was also a good deal of co-optation by the mainstream media. The mainstream media would hire veterans of the underground press to write hipper rock criticism to try to appeal to a younger audience.
SM/AV   What do you think the current crop of student activists and members of the left can learn from the experience of The Seed?
BF   Audacity. The ability to try and do things yourself. To not always seek established channels for what you’re doing. The truth of the matter is that we need this kind of media. Now, a lot of what can be done with media today can be done on the Web, not in print. And that’s an advantage that people have today—we used to actually have to try and gather some money somehow to physically put the thing out. Now, the reality is that it by comparison costs almost nothing, but you still need people dedicated to investigating the same kind of things, and to writing articles, and to go talk to people. I think that there’s not enough of that. One of the interesting experiences with that is the Indymedia movement. There are some very positive things about it, along with some aspects that show a need for improvement in exercising a bit more directly an editorial process. A somewhat unedited discussion forum can be good, as is the ability to get news posted quickly. But there’s also a role for people who are going to act like professional journalists and attempt to direct the focus of a forum to important issues through the exercise of judgment. ◊

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